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Self-Taught & Visionary Art in New Zealand


Richard Wolfe is an author and freelance curator. He has published a number of books and articles on New Zealand folk art and primitivism, including All Our Own Work: New Zealand’s Folk Art, and Primitive Perception: Changing Attitudes Towards Pacific Art (Art New Zealand magazine).

Art historian and curator Richard Wolfe charts the relationship between academic and outsider art, taking in Modernist engagement with the primitive and New Zealand’s forays into exhibiting self-taught art.

A Revolution…

In the mid-18th century, the age-old tradition of the hand-made object came under threat. Luddites famously resisted the mechanical advantages of the Industrial Revolution, but cottage industries were soon displaced by factories, and mass-production took over the domestic arts.

The fine arts were also affected by industrialisation. For example, the Royal Academy (established in 1768) promoted standardised art training, emphasising technical skill and professionalism.

Despite—or perhaps because of—such external forces, traditional ways of making things and creating art survived and would soon be back as part of the bigger picture.

Primitive and American Folk Art

Kave (goddess figure), Nukuororo, Caroline Islands

Kave (goddess figure), Nukuororo, Caroline Islands

Wood / 220 cm
Collection of Auckland Museum*

At the beginning of the 20th century, the art world was stimulated by traditions well beyond the accepted canon.

Gauguin was exposed to traditional Pacific carving at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. The Fauves, a group of French modernists including Henri Matisse, began collecting African artifacts (such collections were previously consigned to ethnology and anthropology museums). This new interest led to a reappraisal and acceptance of the ‘primitive’ as an expressive art form, untainted by Western convention.

There was also growing appreciation of another previously overlooked area: American folk art. Serious collecting began in the 1920s, and articles appeared in such magazines such as Art in America and Antiques.

Outsiders in New Zealand

James Preston, A. J. Dennistoun homestead, Peel Forest

James Preston (1834–1898), New Zealand
A. J. Dennistoun homestead, Peel Forest

Watercolour on paper / 285 × 228 cm
Collection of Canterbury Museum**

Eventually primitive and folk arts were recognised in New Zealand. An early institutional outing for the latter was the Auckland City Art Gallery’s 1959 exhibition of paintings by a so-called ‘Colonial Primitive’, the Reverend James Preston [1].

In 1962 Auckland Museum presented Primitive Sculpture. As part of this exhibition, the massive Caroline Islands goddess figure of Kave went on public display for the first time [2]. The sculpture later traveled to New York for inclusion in another primitivism ‘blockbuster’ [3].

In the late 1980s New Zealand’s folk artists were celebrated in the major exhibitions In the Eye of the Beholder at the Otago Early Settlers Museum and The Innocent Eye at the Dowse Art Gallery [4]. Others followed, perhaps the most extensive being the 1995 touring assemblage Not Bad, Eh! [5].

Influence from the Margins

In recent years the perceived gap between formal, ‘Academy’ art and other areas of creativity has narrowed. There has also been a semantic shift with the retiring of terms such as ‘folk’ and ‘primitive’. Perhaps English quarterly magazine Raw Vision has its finger on the pulse; its masthead taking in Outsider Art, Art Brut, Contemporary Folk Art and Marginal Art, and its contents frequently including Visionary, Self-Taught and Intuitive Art. Whatever the label, this field is a fertile twilight zone that regularly—and often unintentionally—reinvigorates the creative mainstream.

Whereas makers were once oblivious to the outside world, there can be few nowadays who are entirely beyond influence.

Self-Taught and Visionary artists maintain the spirit of an ancient tradition; one in which their predecessors may have been motivated by factors such as isolation and confinement (as when at sea, incarcerated, or in the trenches). However circumstances and attitudes have changed. For example, individuals detained ‘at Her Majesty’s leisure’ may now have the opportunity to be tutored by professionally-trained artists. If this suggests one strand of ‘self-taught’ art is under threat, there are likely to be other challenges to the genre at large. Whereas makers were once oblivious to the outside world, there can be few nowadays who are entirely beyond influence.

Maintaining an Innocent Eye

Picasso was one of a number of influential young artists who admired and supported the painter Henri Rousseau, perhaps one of the best known naïve artists. A century or so later, the challenge is still how to encourage and recognise outsider forms without compromising their integrity or uniqueness.

There can be no argument that Self-Taught and Visionary Art should be promoted. However, making these forms of expression ‘relevant’ and giving them ‘greater mainstream appreciation’ [6] should be handled with extreme care. The value of alternative approaches is that they are outside of the mainstream.

As celebrated by The Innocent Eye and Not Bad Eh?, this field is often a source of fresh ideas and approaches. The richness of outside art forms depends on today’s visionaries being able to operate intuitively and without distracting influences. As Bob Dylan observed: ‘To live outside the law you must be honest…’ [7].

References and further reading

  • * Permission of the Auckland Museum must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
  • ** Permission of the Canterbury Museum must be obtained before any re-use of this image.
  • [1] James Preston: A Colonial Primitive 1959, Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland. A selection of 47 paintings and drawings from the Canterbury Museum collection. Curated by Hamish Keith.
  • [2] Primitive Sculpture 1962, Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland. An exhibition of 66 items from the museum’s collection. Curated and designed by Trevor Bayliss.
  • [3] ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and Modern 1984, Museum of Modern Art, New York.The exhibition later traveled to Detroit and Dallas.
  • [4] In the Eye of the Beholder 1986–7, Otago Early Settlers’ Museum, Dunedin. A collection of 41 ‘naïve’ paintings from the museum’s collection. Curated by Angela Burns. The Innocent Eye (‘Rediscovering the Vision of Art’s Unsung Heroes’) 1987, Dowse Art Gallery, Lower Hutt. A selection of 128 objects drawn from collections throughout New Zealand. Curated by James Mack.
  • [5] Not Bad, Eh! Twentieth Century Folk and Popular Art from Aotearoa New Zealand. First shown at Dowse Art Museum, 1995, and then at Auckland War Memorial Museum and Rotorua Museum of Art and History. Curated by John Perry and Laurence Hall.
  • [6] Stuart Shepherd & Suspect Productions, Self-Taught and Visionary Art in New Zealand, Project Summary, v.1, 11 August 2005, p.3.
  • [7] Bob Dylan 1966 Absolutely Sweet Marie.

Publications by Richard Wolfe

  • Wolfe, Richard 1993–4, Primitive Perception: Changing Attitudes Towards Pacific Art, Art New Zealand, 69, Summer 1993–4, pp. 76–81.
  • Wolfe, Richard 1997, All Our Own Work: New Zealand’s Folk Art, Viking, Auckland.
  • Wolfe, Richard 1998–9, Trains and Boats and Planes: Transports of Delight in New Zealand Art, Art New Zealand, 89, Summer 1998–9, pp. 70 –75.
  • Wolfe, Richard 1999, A Path through the Bush: The Life and Art of Jane Brenkley, Hawke’s Bay Cultural Trust, Napier.
  • Wolfe, Richard 1999–2000, Just a Moment: Primitivism through the Lens, Art New Zealand, 93, Summer 1999–2000, pp. 80–85.